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DEATH PENALTY-RWANDA: Abolition Spurs Quest for Justice

Aimable Twahirwa

KIGALI, Aug 7 2007 (IPS) - Rwanda has moved swiftly to capitalise on the international approval it received for its recent abolition of the death penalty, and signalled that it will now actively seek the extradition of suspects in the 1994 genocide known to be hiding out abroad and evading justice.

"We have already signed extradition agreements with many countries in Africa, Europe and in North America. We are hoping that those countries will co-operate to bring to trial all genocide suspects, or to extradite their cases before Rwandan justice," Justice Minister Tharcisse Karugarama said here Aug. 2. "If there are other nations which could help we would praise this," Karugarama told IPS earlier.

Karugarama’s statement, coming just a week after the formal abolition of the death penalty on Jul. 25, will go some way to appease genocide victims who are unhappy that perpetrators of the "ultimate crime" will now escape death by firing squad.

Some 44,204 Rwandans accused of participating in the genocide are living abroad, according to an institutional judicial report published here in May.

The need for Rwanda to continue the quest for justice was underlined by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour, who issued one of the first and warmest tributes for Rwanda’s decision to abolish the death penalty. The thirst for justice remained "far from quenched", she acknowledged, adding: "With the promulgation of the law banning the death penalty, Rwanda simultaneously takes an important step forward in ensuring respect for the right to life and makes further progress in bringing to justice those responsible for the heinous crimes of the 1994 genocide."

For most countries, the abolition of the death penalty in Rwanda was a prerequisite for allowing extradition of genocide suspects to the Central African nation. Rwanda’s last executions of those convicted for their role in the genocide, in which more than 800,000 minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered by Hutu extremists, took place in 1998. Twenty-two persons found guilty of helping to plan the killings were publicly shot.

Since then all others convicted of participating in the genocide have been sitting on death row awaiting execution. Death penalty abolition means they – and people sentenced to death for other crimes – will now be spared and serve out life imprisonment terms. In all, about 650 people will avoid capital punishment.

In 1996 the U.N. Security Council set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to "contribute to the process of national reconciliation" and try some of the most serious cases of genocide. The tribunal, which will have completed trials of some 70 people by the end of next year, will now be able to wind up its work and transfer 17 cases to the Rwandan justice system, ICTR prosecutor Hassan Babacar Jallow confirmed to IPS in Rwanda&#39s capital – Kigali.

Eighteen people indicted by the tribunal are still on the run.

Rwanda can expect police forces around the globe to co-operate in tracking down these and other suspects. "It is our duty as police officers to do everything in our power to identify and apprehend these fugitives who are wanted in connection with such serious crimes," the president of Interpol, Jackie Selebi, said at its 19th African Regional Conference in Tanzania last month. Interpol has 186 member countries.

Rwandan community groups abroad are also likely to campaign vigorously for extradition proceedings to be brought against genocide suspects in their midst.

Days after the news of abolition, the Rwandan community in Canada led the way by calling for the extradition of Leon Mugesera, a former Hutu extremist who had been allowed to stay in Canada while Rwanda’s death penalty was in place.

Despite the official assurances that Rwanda will now seek a return of these people, many of those who survived the genocide were critical of the death penalty ban when interviewed by IPS.

"This is only going to encourage those bent on our extermination," said Gisele Dusabe. "This is a humiliation. I lost my entire family and up to today have received no compensation."

But Paul Kazoba, a Tutsi who fled to Uganda, expressed a different view. "We need to rebuild our nation," he said. "True reconciliation is only possible if one refrains from retaliatory killing."

A Hutu genocide participant who has confessed before the community ‘Gacaca’ courts, established to speed up the administration of justice, welcomed the ban on capital punishment. "We deeply regret what we have done. The abolition of the death penalty will surely facilitate reconciliation."

The Gacaca courts were first set up in 2001, at a time when more than 100,000 Rwandans were waiting in jails to be tried for crimes connected with the genocide. They have settled many cases after accepting expressions of contrition, and reparations. The state judicial system has continued to hear the cases of those accused of planning and organising the genocide.

Thousands of Rwandans are still awaiting trial for genocide-related crimes. Amnesty International has expressed concern over the conditions they are held in. "We welcome this step taken by the Rwandan government. It is a good move for the Great Lakes region as it is the first country there to abolish the death penalty. But we want to raise concern about the appalling and inhumane prison conditions in Rwanda," said Central Africa researcher Arnaud Royer.

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